Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia; she now makes her home in Middlebury, Vermont. She graduated with honors in History from Davidson College and is a degree candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Elizabeth serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Childhood and Religion, a peer-reviewed online journal. Her essay, “Rebranding a Life: Spirituality and Chronic Illness,” was accepted for a collection, A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, & Preachers (2011). Her collaborative writing project Essays on Childhood, was featured on West Virginia Public Radio.
Her memories of “the rabbits” reflect one of her most formative childhood events.
Small Things in My Hand (part 1)
I think I was in the first grade when the rabbits came. Our family had been visiting cousins in Winchester, and for some reason we came back to West Virginia with rabbits, one for me and one for my little sister. It felt spontaneous and unplanned, exactly the way one is never supposed to take on companion animals. I sensed a friendly but strained acceptance of these creatures by my parents. There was a lot of smiling and reassurances and talk of where to get a hutch.
Both rabbits were young and fat; the word was they were siblings. My sister immediately proclaimed her pure white pet was “Peter,’ which left me with a black and white splotchy female I named after my cousin, “Lee.” The rabbits were nervous and always in motion. I was warned to make sure Lee got hard vegetables to cut with her teeth every day because her teeth would never stop growing and had to be worn down proactively. No one said what would happen if I didn’t provide the tooth-reducing food, and I presumed it was too horrific to even mention. It was understood. Provide the carrots or face a bloody future at the obscene gargantuan jaws of an angry animal. The rabbits scared me, but I tried not to let anyone else know that. One is not supposed to be afraid of rabbits. I tried not to let Lee know she frightened me, but I was sure that she could tell. My sister seemed to fare better than I did, but she was four years old at the most and not qualified to manage an animal on her own.
It was a matter of days before Peter and Lee were out of the house and into what I learned was a “hutch.” The hutch was made of wood and two kinds of wire. It was a house on stilts that kept its inhabitants up and off of the ground. Chicken wire created windows while a thicker, stronger wire woven into a tiny perfect pattern of squares like a chessboard served as the floor. I was grateful that cleaning up after the rabbits was easier now that their outdoor apartment floor let most of their potty break material fall to the ground.
Once the rabbits moved outside I started distancing myself from them in psychological ways as well as physical. It wasn’t long before I was feeding Lee through the chicken wire instead of opening the hutch door. It seemed safer. I found myself looking for ways to justify not picking her up, which of course led to longer and longer intervals between her visits to the house. If I looked in and the water bottle was full or full enough, even if I had not changed the water that day I told myself that the rabbits had water and nothing more was required of me. The same was true with the food pellets I was supposed to pour into the hard ceramic bowl on the floor of the hutch. Once the pellets became damp, probably simply from condensation and temperature changes outside, they attracted insects. I knew the rabbits needed fresh food, and yet I was becoming even more afraid of interacting with them. They seemed to be changing.
While they had always been skittish and unpredictable, they now seemed to hold their nervous energy for long periods. They remained still for several minutes, then leapt fiercely at the hutch door. They wanted out. I wanted them out too, but I could not figure out how to get us all free from this mess. What would my mother say if I confessed I was afraid of them? I had begged for them to come home with us and then instantly regretted it when she said yes. The bunnies in my storybooks were sweet, gentle. These animals were hardly vicious, but they were on edge. I wondered if I had failed them, if they once had potential to be wonderful pets and I had unlocked their wild beast hearts through my fear and neglect.